(Editor’s note: The following article by Andrew Balio, principal trumpet player for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the second part of a three-part essay on potentially damaging trends in the conservatory and university educations of classical musicians. The first appeared on October 14; the final will appear on October 16.)
It’s hard not to sympathize with the plight of the young musician who, despite or perhaps rather because of his passion, is destined to scrape together his living in “the real world” outside the towering ivory walls of our traditional institutions of classical music. We sense that his is the lot of the disenfranchised—which, we might suspect, in some ways we too share. We mourn the difficulty of his dejected life and regret what we fear to be his wasted potential. But our compassion, like the wider, prevailing social conscience with which it harmonizes, also has a dark side.
That darkness is the ominous shadow of resentment; it inevitably creates a stormy gulf between the struggling and the successful.
Classical music is identified with elitism, and with some justification. It is no small endeavor to bring together 100 or more highly skilled musicians; it must be financially supported by wealthy patrons, powerful institutions, or a well-heeled middle class. Only a tiny percentage of the population is musically gifted and driven enough to achieve the high artistic competence necessary to be a professional orchestra member, and they must be intensely trained by equally gifted teachers. Even appreciation of classical music does not come as easily as it does with other, more accessible forms. That it requires more from both artist and audience is a great part of its appeal; it “excludes” naturally because it draws only those who strive to go higher and deeper artistically.
But there is a troubling tendency to conflate the “privileged class” with our traditional, musical institutions, such as orchestras—or even with the small group of elite students who will eventually find positions in them. This tendency implies an injustice. Our resentment and our egalitarian ideals convince us that those in the small, privileged group wielding all the influence and power somehow don’t deserve their position, as if they came by it dishonestly or by lucky accident.
And we have a sense that culture is like that. You are born into a culture, of course, and so the great accomplishments you’ve inherited are really none of your own doing. They are a fortunate accident, like being born into great wealth. So if your birthright is the culture that came up with something particularly and impressively difficult to attain, something that has endured many centuries, and has consequently become the aspiration or the envy of the world, you will have some explaining to do. In this light, the canon, the traditions, and the longstanding conservatories and institutions of the European tradition of classical music all begin to look suspiciously like an elaborate system designed to exclude all but a cultural elite that does not deserve its place. And so they are turned into objects of resentment and scorn.
But we do a great disservice to high culture when we treat it this way. One isn’t born into an orchestra or a canon. None of the world’s great musicians or history’s great composers were destined to be so by birth. Membership in either is a long-term project and must be earned at every step of the way. In fact, music has remained one of those few pursuits in which success has been possible for the talented in any class throughout the course of European history’s most rigidly hierarchical societies.
Nevertheless, many are swept along by the tyrannical tide of prevailing attitudes which make no such distinctions about social injustice and which view any objection to the ravages of their progress through our conservatories as their raison d’être. Those within the academy who lack either the will or the rhetorical skill to resist the tide of resentment threatening the canon, our traditional forms, and our historical institutions instead turn and join it. Some, guided by their compassion and by their sincere desire not to deserve the contempt rising around them on all sides, hasten to apologize for and repudiate all the more vigorously the insularity and elitism of which the tradition is accused.
Others step forward to lead the assault, driven by either the revolutionary’s ideological conviction or else the careerist’s cynical opportunism. We might suspect the College Music Society’s Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major (TFUMM) of the latter when it bluntly declares “the culturally narrow horizons of music study [are] nothing short of a social justice crisis.”
And so, misguided but often well-meaning castigates are left to search for the things which classical music can be and do in order to ameliorate the elitism that they are now convinced has caused all the problems of the world. Classical music—and the schools which perpetuate it—must now be about setting aright the injustices of our troubled age. Our music schools now promise, as one of the nation’s most prominent conservatories does, that their “gifted students will not only be trained as musicians but also as catalysts who will inspire creativity and spark positive change in their communities.”
I’m at a loss to explain to you how they intend to train their “catalysts” to “spark positive change.” Are they putting the string section through classes in the theory and tactics of social and political activism? Are they giving the trombone section master classes on “leaning in” and “paying it forward”? And what is the nature, we might wonder, of this “positive change”? The TFUMM’s report is far less vague:
A strong argument can also be made that the transformed model of music study advanced by TFUMM will shape a new generation of artists/visionaries who will transmit their broad and transformative wisdom to society and positively impact many of the most pressing issues of our times. Ecological crises, poverty, famine, disease, violence against women, child abuse, ideological and extremist tensions…
are all mentioned in the very next breath.
Of course, that’s a laughably tall order. Does anyone really believe in the “broad and transformative wisdom” of recent college graduates? Do we have any reason to think that the next generation of musicians will finally solve human society’s oldest and most persistent problems? Yet we hear the unmistakable echo of this strange idea in the rhapsodic rhetoric coming from our nation’s beleaguered professional orchestras. They too have largely capitulated to the forces of popular resentment and have accepted their role as scapegoat. They too now increasingly promise “positive change” in return for the right to exist.
Lurking beneath efforts to convince us of classical music’s ability to change our communities and to bring an end to social injustices of all kinds is fear of the oft-repeated prophecy that classical music is dying. But in fact there are more people learning, practicing, and performing classical music in more corners of the globe than ever before in the tradition’s history. If there is any sense in which the gloomy prophecy is true, it is due to the steady erosion of the discipline within the academy at the hands of shortsighted careerists “whose primary concern is with self promotion (grounded in ideological posturing and research ‘agendas’),” (from Bonfires of the Humanities: Rescuing Classics in an Impoverished Age by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, and Bruce Thornton). Getting ahead in today’s academic milieu is as simple as taking cheap potshots at the tradition in the name of social justice. Accolades, promotions, and attention reward those who find innovative ways to serve social and political agendas in spite of—and indeed, specifically to spite—the canon and the traditional forms and institutions of classical music.
I did not have to go out of my way to provide an example. A respected state university lists the qualifications of the recently appointed head of its music school as follows:
An ethnomusicologist, her research interests include African American music, feminist theories, queer studies in music and the social sciences, and race in American popular culture. [She] pursues these interests in…a study that tracks the emergence of black feminist consciousness in women’s music. The latter is a network that emerged from a subculture of lesbian feminism in the early 1970s. …[Her] research into the interactions of race, gender and sexuality in regard to African American music cultures is complemented by her personal and professional advocacy on behalf of women, people of color, and other underrepresented constituencies in departments and schools of music.
Hardly a word is said about her musical qualifications, her mastery of the canon, her accomplishments as a teacher of classical music, or even about her previous experience running an institution of higher education. These sets of skills, it would seem, are an afterthought to her political agenda. Are we to believe that her “advocacy” is what qualifies her to lead a music school? That is, in fact, exactly what we’re expected to believe. Here is someone who represents “change we can believe in” and proof of the university’s complicity in the repudiation of classical music’s “elitist” and “exclusionary” European heritage. Here is a mascot for the social activism that will save the conservatory from resentment and ruin.
But it is in just this way that classical music within the academy will die: as we replace, for the sake of politics or expediency, the teachers who quietly loved and maintained the tradition with those who’ve made a career of loudly condemning or refuting it, the discipline will be chipped away from the inside by a myriad of tiny careerists and ideologues happy to attack or cheapen the long and living tradition of Western classical music for the sake of a petty promotion or a hearty pat on the back.
The third and final installment of this essay will discuss a growing emphasis on superficial “creativity” over skill, as well as a potential solution to the impending crisis in the conservatory.